Rehearsal in the classroom

Dr G is teaching the structure of the heart to his bottom set Year 10 class. The students in front of him are listening attentively as he draws the structure bit by bit, explaining each part and punctuating his explanation with questions. A mini-whiteboard quiz that follows reveals a couple of errors but mostly shows that students can name different parts of the heart.

Subsequent checks through questioning and homework allow students to practice recall of the different parts of the heart and the flow of blood through it. When prompted, they can link what they have previously learnt about gas exchange in the lungs to blood flow through the heart.

The time has come for the end of topic assessment and when Mr G marks these, he is disappointed to see that students have got the words all mixed up. They are writing the word ‘aorta’ instead of ‘artery’. A simple question where students need to describe the flow of blood from the lungs and body to the heart flummoxes them. They have forgotten to link restricted blood flow to the supply of oxygen in another question, which is something they learnt about in the previous topic!

What was going on?

This scenario has played itself out a few times in my teaching career. During lessons, students appear to recall key facts. They get to practice writing these facts and linking them to other facts when answering questions independently in lessons and at home, through homework. Why, then, do they struggle to link things well and mix up key terms in assessments?

I think the answer lies in a lack of rehearsal.

Tom Sherrington expertly explains why sufficient rehearsal, particularly in the form of verbal practice, is necessary before engaging in retrieval practice.

In the above scenario, students can recall simple facts but verbalising sequences that link those facts together is also needed. The latter also has the advantage of consolidating key terms securely within the right context.

For example, getting students to practice saying ‘oxygenated blood from the lungs enters the left atrium of the heart through the pulmonary vein, flows down to the left ventricle and is pumped up and out of the heart through the aorta to go to the rest of the body‘ does the following:

  • links oxygenated blood to the left side of the heart
  • verbalises the direction of the flow of blood from the atrium to the ventricle
  • names the vessels in the correct order
  • links blood flow through the heart with the lungs and the rest of the body

Most importantly, when students rehearse saying this sequence out loud, they remember all the facts in context. They are not just remembering the word ‘aorta’ as the vessel that carries oxygentaed blood away from the heart but in the context of the flow of blood and even suggests its location by saying that blood is flowing ‘up and out’ of the heart.

Some may think practising this long sequence is tedious but it is totally worth the effort. Especially with a class where students are not achieving well and are underconfident.

Rehearsing important sequences and links between concepts empowers students. We are not just limiting them to recall of one-word answers.

With a small class, I get each student to rehearse key ideas and sequences out loud and in turn.

  • First, I tell students what I will expect them to say out loud.
  • Then I give them at least a minute to memorise it, sometimes longer depending on what I want them to rehearse.
  • Next, I ask for volunteers and pick on a couple of confident students. This gives the others a bit more time to remember the key parts.
  • Then, I start Cold Calling students so that all students have a chance to say it.
  • To avoid students feeling like they can zone out once they have finished, sometimes, I stop a student mid-way and ask anyone to say the next part of the sequence.

With larger classes, this is not possible and takes up too much time, so I get students to Turn and Talk, and then pick on a couple to rehearse out loud.

In a future lesson, I ask students to write out the sequence on MWBs or in the back of their books. If relevant, I also get students to add any new related facts we have learnt to the sequence.

You do need the right culture in your classroom before rehearsal in this manner works. Students should be supportive of each other and not afraid to make mistakes. I have previously written about how I try and build this type of culture in a class where students were openly mocking each other.

But once the culture is right, you will find students wanting to rehearse these key sequences, and to step in when a classmate is struggling. They are more confident to answer questions related to the sequence. Instead of racking their brains for the right key term, and shouting out similar-sounding words (aorta for artery), they find retrieval a more rewarding experience.

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